A day at Lake Bracciano

Today, we drove to Bracciano, a volcanic lake just north of Rome. With a cloudless blue sky, the still air and the openess of the space around us absorbing any sound, it reminded me how much I love to live here.

Of all the dozens of exotic places I lived in, I never enjoyed a country as much as Italy. The country, its sights, its lust for life, its food, its people. Nothing seems to compare to Italy.

Especially on a day like this. With my girls in the early spring sunshine. Wondering on the shore of a lake. And finding a perfect spot to lunch, on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

I wished I could send you all the happiness I feel.

A day at Lake Bracciano

A day at Lake Bracciano

A day at Lake Bracciano

A day at Lake Bracciano

A day at Lake Bracciano

A day at Lake Bracciano

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Day off to Pompei

Tine, the girls and our five months' old French bulldog pup "Mr.H" came over to Rome for a week. Thursday I took a day off and we visited the ruins of Pompei near Naples.



The girls in Pompei

Mr H in Pompei

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Our Kiva project 13: Bliquis Aziz

Bliquis Aziz's group

Here is a summary of The Road's 13th social project:

A micro-financing loan to the Bliquis Aziz's Women's Group in Pakistan.

Bilquis baji lives in Pakpattan, Pakistan. The city is famous for its shrine of great Punjabi Sufi poet, Babar Fareed Ganj Shakkar.

Bliquis baji is the mother of two sons, both of whom are auto-rickshaw drivers (the local three-wheeled motor vehicle). She is a housewife but applies for a loan to buy another rickshaw for her eldest son, so that he able to increase his profits as a transit driver.

This is a group loan, and she is joined in her request by four other members. The loan funds will be distributed among the group members, each of whom will invest in their own business:
- Kaneez baji wants a loan to buy a mirror and chair for her beauty salon.
- Zafran baji also wants a loan to buy a rickshaw.
- Mukhtayar baji wants a loan to buy tools for her vehicle repair workshop.
- Saima baji wants a loan to buy cigarettes for her cigarette selling business.

The members mutually guarantee one another's loans. If one member does not repay, the other members are responsible. (See also the group's full profile on Kiva)

This loan goes through "Asasah", the local micro financing partner of Kiva.

Loan Request: $900
Repayment terms: 11 months (Deadline Dec 15 2009)
We gave them a loan of US$100

This is The Road's 13th social project. The funds for this loan were donated by the VK0IR Heard Island expedition team.

More on The Road's social project "Change Starts Here".
You can keep track of our project via our score card.

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Dubai: Now and Then

A previous post reminded me of my time in Dubai.

How it was in 1991, the "Trade Center strip":

dubai before

This is how the "Trade Center strip" looked like when I arrived for the first time in Dubai in 2001:


Most of the built-up area concentrates around the same area:

being built

You recognize the Trade Center strip on the top right corner. The whole area below that, the Business Bay area, is newly built up. Up to 2003 there was little more than sand. Actually, we built our offices there in January 2004 (see this short story)

I suggest you also have a look at this photo essay from the Boston Globe.

Pictures courtesy The Skyscraper blog, Dubai Architecture and most.com

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Aidwork with a twist: Afghanistan bush pilot

Bush pilot in Afghanistan

Most of us aidworkers who have worked in the deep field, have once upon a time used a flight from UNHAS, the UN Humanitarian Air Services.

It has always amazed me how these people manage the fly to the most remote places, with little or no dependence on technical support or flight control. Often the places are so isolated from.. well from anything, the pilots have to fly low over an airstrip first, to check if it is safe to land: no "people with guns" around? No cattle on the earth strip?

Marie Claire, a women's magazine, published an article about Danielle Aitchison, one of the female pilots of UNHAS flying in Afghanistan.

Take glimpse into an extra-ordinary life of a lady calling herself "just a regular chick".

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Robbed. Or not.

Flower on Lake Victoria

I had a dream last night. I had just arrived in a country on field mission, and had left my computer bag and suitcase in the car while having a quick bite in a restaurant on the way from the airport. When I came back, the windows were open and everything in the car was stolen.

Made me think of the times I have been robbed. Knowing I have been to the world's worst (and poorest) places, only few times actually:

Once my attache case was stolen from the car in Goma. In Kampala, they opened a window on the ground floor and grabbed everything they could get hold of through the safety bars.
In transit from Angola to Malawi, they stole $1,000 from the double bottom in my camera bag in Zimbabwe.
And in Rome, they robbed the house I was living in, and nicked the GPS out of my car.

But once, I was really lucky. A few years ago, I was driving around in Kampala, trying to find a place that sold galvanized nuts and bolts - a rare commodity back then. After parking the car near the matatu station I sped out of the car to a shop, only to find that... I had no wallet. Went back to the car, and recalled I had put my wallet on my lap while driving. Probably it had fallen out of the car as I got out.
I was sitting in the car, my heart in my shoes (Flemish saying) while thinking of my wallet's content: National and Ugandan ID card, credit cards, cash, drivers license, debit cards... God, it would take me ages to replace it all. And many phone calls to block all cards...

A guy knocked on the side window. He said "Are you missing anything, sir?". "Yes", I sighed. He asked: "I think I know where to get it, how much is it worth to you?" I answered: "Two hundred shilling".
"Wait", he mumbled and sped off.

A few minutes later, which seemed like hours, he re-appeared and gave me my wallet. I could not believe it. Everything was still in it. All credit cards, all papers, even the cash.

I could have kissed the guy. I gave him 300 shilling. He returned my gesture with a big smile. I waved and drove off. Thinking of how lucky, and how blessed I was that day.

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Aid is dead. Long live aid.

aid (eh) tintin in congo

Dambisa Moyo was born and raised in Zambia. She has a PhD in Economics from the Oxford University, a Masters from Harvard and an MBA in Finance from the American University in Washington DC.
She previously worked for the Worldbank, and in debt capital markets at Goldman Sachs. (Full)

Dambisa MoyoJust to illustrate she is not "just anyone" when one considers the insights registered in her book "Dead Aid", subtitled "Why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa".

From her website:

In the past fifty years, more than $1 trillion in development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Has this assistance improved the lives of Africans? No. In fact, across the continent, the recipients of this aid are not better off as a result of it, but worse—much worse.

In Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo describes the state of postwar development policy in Africa today and unflinchingly confronts one of the greatest myths of our time: that billions of dollars in aid sent from wealthy countries to developing African nations has helped to reduce poverty and increase growth.

In fact, poverty levels continue to escalate and growth rates have steadily declined—and millions continue to suffer. Provocatively drawing a sharp contrast between African countries that have rejected the aid route and prospered and others that have become aid-dependent and seen poverty increase, Moyo illuminates the way in which overreliance on aid has trapped developing nations in a vicious circle of aid dependency, corruption, market distortion, and further poverty, leaving them with nothing but the “need” for more aid.

Clooney in DarfurDebunking the current model of international aid promoted by both Hollywood celebrities and policy makers, Moyo offers a bold new road map for financing development of the world’s poorest countries that guarantees economic growth and a significant decline in poverty—without reliance on foreign aid or aid-related assistance.

Dead Aid is an unsettling yet optimistic work, a powerful challenge to the assumptions and arguments that support a profoundly misguided development policy in Africa. And it is a clarion call to a new, more hopeful vision of how to address the desperate poverty that plagues millions.

There are a series of interesting articles covering her book and her opinions:
- The Anti-Bono (NY Times)
- Aid dependency blights Africa. The cure is in the credit crisis. (Independent)
- The road to ruin (Guardian)
- Everybody knows it does not work (Guardian)
More here.

Of course the aid "industry" has reacted. But barely. As of today, a Google search only shows two articles: A half-assed reply by the co-founder of "One" in the Financial Times, and a more relativating answer by the CEO of SOS Children UK.
Update: Feb 23: Another half assed answer by Oxfam

Dambisa clarifies in one article:
She makes it clear at the outset what kind of aid she means. She does not mean humanitarian or emergency aid, mobilised in response to calamities; she does not mean charity-based aid, given to specific organisations and people on the ground, in order to achieve specific things (she sits on the boards of several charities, one of which distributes antiretrovirals); she is hopeful about a new attitude to food aid, whereby the money is used to buy food from farmers within a country, and then distribute it to those in need, instead of flooding the place with foreign food that undercuts local growers. What she means is "systemic aid", the vast sums regularly transferred from government to government, or via institutions such as the World Bank. (Full)

My response, as an aid worker, is this:

1. Don't limit the discussion
If one limits the discussion only to aid given to a government (bilateral or via IMF/Worldbank), we are limiting the discussion too much. We do need to question any form of aid. Even though aid given to government institutions is an obvious (and easy) target of criticism.
But also humanitarian aid, emergency aid, should be looked at. Why, after decennia of foreign aid, is the West still crawling over each other to provide relief in cases of natural disasters? What is done to institutionally ensure these countries (which are always the same, by the way), can (mostly) take care of their own disaster response?

2. Aid has proven to be ineffective.
It is clear that traditional aid does not work. And has never worked. Otherwise aid organisations would have been able to prove at least some progress in countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, DRC, Afghanistan,...
If it took us 40-50 years to come to that conclusion, so be it. A pity of the money wasted, but at least let's start changing the mechanics now.

3. But everybody was happy?!
Aid has been a self-fulfilling and self-fueling economic mechanism. I have always said there are three markets in the world economy: the official market, the black market and the aid market.
All three keep the world economy turning. Unfortunately mostly the "first world economy". Here is how I see it work:
- Too many donor governments are all too happy to channel foreign aid through whatever means. After all, they need to look good on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) performance scale. And it is good for public opinion. Helps get people re-elected.
- Too many aid organisations are all too happy to transform that donor money into projects. After all, they need to sustain themselves. No, or hardly ANY aid agency will turn down money from a donor. No matter how ridiculous or un-needed the targets are (hats off to MSF for refusing more Tsunami aid two weeks after the disaster, stating they had sufficient funding. Which aid agency would have the courage to do that?)
- So one loves to give, the other loves to accept. All happy-happy.
- Foreign "aid" as such is an industry by itself. It employs people, it keeps "the economy" running. But whose economy?
No surprise a lot, if not most, of the goods procured by aid organisations is produced in "the West". Many services are procured from companies in "the West". In this aspect, not much difference between "a war in Iraq" and "foreign aid", is there? Both are wagging the dog of 'our economy'.
- Foreign "aid" has been targeting mostly countries a donor country had a political, economical or military connection with. "Aid" was just a way of keeping government counterparts happy. No matter if the aid was effective or not. It kept the targeted country as an ally. We got cheap resources from them, or they did not 'fall' into the hands of the communists, or more recently in the hands of the islamists.

4. The worst was if aid would actually work
For the 'west', it has always been best if a developing country sitting on a lot of natural resources (oil, diamonds, gold, minerals) was unstable.
It was a way to get those resources cheaply. During the Angola civil war, their oil was sold for many years in advance, only to keep the cost of war going.
Look around you: which countries have gone through the most devastating levels of poverty and civil war? Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, DRC, Somalia, Sudan... I bet you if we make a top 10 list of the countries (in the world) with the longest civil wars, and you tick those with abundant natural resources, you would be surprised of the correlation.
OK, I will relativate: natural resources or a country's strategic (political, religious or geographical) position.. Should cover all on the top 10, top 20 list.
So if aid would have been effective, and would have brought peace, prosperity or stability, in what way would it not have been decremental to the Western Economy? God forgive if a country like that would become an economical power. An independent political entity with its own mind. Gosh, think what that would have done to the political position of the powers-that-be?

Clooney in Darfur5. So what is the way out?
- I agree with Dambisa: government to government aid does not work. As electorate, we should hold our governments accountable to give us real and verifiable figures of effectiveness.
- Worldbank aid does not work. Same thing: Show us verifiable figures of effectiveness.
- Effectiveness of aid in no matter what shape or form, should be measurable along the same criteria. Criteria should include clear and concrete targets from the onset, and measures of achievement. Aid should measured by the effectiveness for the individuals targeted, not by the effectiveness for institutions (which can not be measured).
- Any aid organisation, any humanitarian organisation should work on a voluntary funding basis. No guaranteed annual funding. Funding per project. You don't perform? Next time you don't get funding anymore. Worldbank the first to start.
- Aid, any aid, should be audited by external bodies. Objective figures should be provided for overhead.
- Aid, any aid, should be governed by the same measures of governance quality as the commercial market (as long as it is not the US-standards of governance. We all saw where that one brought us).
Why don't we apply ISO-9002 to aid? Let's make an ISO standard for aid. After all we spent trillions on aid. And it our money. Us, tax payers, need to know. We cry foul when we see the government wasting money on ineffective road building or useless prestige projects, but don't cry foul when we pour billions over the 'poor'? Because we get soft hearted when seeing children crying on TV? Think what you do to that child to ensure it stops crying the next year. And the year after. And the year after.

OkayOkayOkay. I am getting off my soapbox now.

Pictures courtesy deadaid.org, AP, princeton.edu and Logan Abassi (MINUSTAH)

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Sign of the times: the meaning of "Aid"

On one of the pages in my NewsFeeds site, I filter news sources based on certain keywords.

In three feeds, I filter on the keys "aid", "aid worker", "aid work". It is remarkable how in the past months the articles these filters display, have shifted from "foreign aid" or "humanitarian aid" to financial assistance for the crippled economy. In the "first" world.

Would this be a sign of the times where "aid" turns solely towards domestic issues?

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Picture of the Day: Appreciating life...

even if our brain

Many similar random clips I come across, you can find on The Signs Along The Road.

More Pictures of the Day on The Road.

Picture courtesy Behance.net

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Turning CO2 pollution into fuel

Adrian's Villa - Tivoli (Italy)

Sometimes I feel there is a glimmer of hope:

Researchers found a way to convert a mixture of carbon dioxide (CO2) into natural gas, using nanotubes powered only by natural sunlight.

According to Craig Grimes, from Pennsylvania State University, such devices offer a new way to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into fuel or other chemicals, effectively cutting the effect of fossil fuel emissions on the global climate.

"If you tried to build a commercial system using what we have accomplished to date, you'd go broke," admits Grimes, but he is confident that commercially viable results are possible. (Full)

Discovered via The Road Daily

More on The Road about pollution, the environment and climate change.

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A helping hand for fellow aid workers


Some requests from fellow aid workers:

  1. Bill Walters is a humanitarian aid worker and doctorate of Community Psychology student at the Wilfrid Laurier University. He carries out a research study titled “Accountability to and participation of members of affected communities in international humanitarian relief and recovery efforts: Critical exploration of the current state of affairs and articulation of means to influence positive change”.

    As a part of the research project he is recruiting eight participants to share their insights and perspectives. Participants in this study have to be humanitarian aid worker with a minimum of two years field experience who are currently active, or have been involved within the last six months, in a disaster response effort.

    Interested? Check out the details of Bill's research.

  2. The Humanitarian Logistics Association (HLA) is looking for a Plone expert willing to give them a hand with their website, on a volunteering basis. Contact via Edita(dot)Nichols(at)fritzinstitute(dot)org

  3. And finally a request from WhereCampAfrica, an event gathering software developers, artists, geographers and academics for a one day "bootcamp", or "wherecamp" as they call it, in Nairobi on April. They are looking for good Tshirt printers in Nairobi. Contact via jharpster(at)wherecampafrica(dot)org.

I have done my good deed for today! Am I now going to heaven?

Picture courtesy Future Perfect

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Headline: The Pope looses hat. Read all about it!

Some serious reporting going on over here in Italy:

Vatican City, February 18 - The pope's hat flew off in an icy blast during Wednesday's general audience but he kept on speaking as if nothing had happened.

Pope looses hatBenedict XVI had opened the audience by telling the faithful, gathered despite the wintry weather: "It's cold but at least it isn't raining or snowing and we have to be thankful for that".

The pope tried to keep hat on his head but a particularly vicious gust wrenched it from his grasp, observers said.

He was seen soon afterwards with replacement headgear the Vatican keeps ready for such accidents.

It was the second time Benedict has lost his hat in St Peter's. In May 2006 the wind blew his hat off as he rode the Popemobile through the crowds. (Source)

Picture courtesy ANSA

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Song of the day: Je pense a toi - I am thinking of you...

Amadou & Mariam are a musical duo from Mali, who met at Mali's Institute for the Young Blind.

The duo's early recordings in the 80s and 90s feature spare arrangements of guitar and voice. Since the late 1990s Amadou & Mariam produce music that mixes traditional Mali sound with rock guitars, Syrian violins, Cuban trumpets, Egyptian ney, Colombian trombones, Indian tablas and Dogon percussion. All these elements put together have been referred to as "Afro-blues".

More music and videos on The Road.

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Picture of the Day: Foreclosure

World Press Photo of the Year 2008

A black-and-white image by American photographer Anthony Suau was voted as the World Press Photo of the Year 2008.

The picture shows an armed officer of the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department moving through an evicted home in Cleveland, Ohio, following a mortgage foreclosure. (Full)

More Pictures of the Day on The Road.

Picture courtesy Anthony Suau, AFP/Getty Images

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Economic downturn hitting charity and aid work

a young ugandan family cooks a meal

Back in October, I predicted the economic turmoil would soon result in a new humanitarian crisis.

Three news bulletins caught my eye today:

Nonprofit organizations have an estimated $166-billion worth of construction and renovation projects in the US on hold because of the economic downturn. (Full)

World Bank President, Robert Zoellick, estimated that the global economic crisis will cause up to 53 million more people to live on less than $2 a day. (Full)

UK aid agencies cut staff to make up for the weak UK pound (Full)

Picture courtesy T.J. Kirkpatrick/Momenta via Scarlett Lion

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"Change Starts Here" broke the $5,000 mark!

one of the loans we made today: the Lim Vuthea Women's group in Cambodia

"Change Starts Here", our blog's social project just broke the $5,000 mark!

Tonight, we received a series of repayments on loans we previously made and reinvested them in the following new Kiva micro financing projects:

- Kamil Akhmadov in Azerbaijan: $50 (purchase of two calves)
- Marcia Mejia Women in the Dominican Republic: $25 (expand shop inventory)
- Lim Vuthea Women in Cambodia: $50 (repair of their house)
- Evelyn Dionela in the Philippines : $50 (purchase of a freezer to store the food she sells)
- Altantsetseg Duden in Mongolia: $50 (expand the assortment of books she sells in her store)
- Norma Andia Conga Women in Peru: $50 (expand the variety of items in stock for their stores)
- Khayyam Tagiyev in Azerbaijan : $50 (spare parts for his taxi)
- Laure Agbogbe in Togo: $50 (expand her cosmetics business)

We also welcome Mark, from Toronto-Canada as our 14th Kiva team member.

You can follow the progress of our project on our scorecard or join in the discussions on our discussion forum

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Picks of the week: From space to Afghanistan and back

park between the lines

Am at home, in bed with a sore back. I have some time to browse the web a bit. If you have five minutes, here are my picks of the week (eh.. day..):

  • What are the odds?
    British and French nuclear subs collide in Atlantic (Full).
    Maybe a confusion about the priority rules. Who goes first at crossroads? The one coming from the left or the one from the right?

  • What are the odds? - Part 2
    A Russian and US satellite collide in space (Full).
    Now what would be the "rules of the road" in space, hey?

  • Jean does it again.
    Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is "a mad dictator" who has lost all sense of reality, according to Jean Ziegler, a UN human rights expert (Full).
    I hope that was not part of his opening speech in a new round of negotiations!

  • Not too embarrassing
    A man walked into the EU parliament building in Brussels. And robs the resident bank (Full).
    He must have been desperate. At the rate the Europeans have been bailing out their banks, who would come to the bank at the EU parliament?

  • The only difference between men and boys
    Combat Outpost, a video from the Afghan frontline (Full)
    It makes me think of the times when we were kids and we were playing 'cowboys and indians'. Sad really.

  • Stephanie in Zambia.
    From Kala is the newest edition to my list of aid workers blogs (check out the full list in the side column). Stephanie just started her assignment in a Zambian refugee camp. It is always fascinating to read how others experience their first aid work assignment.

  • Oh, and..
    In between aaallll the fabulous sites I manage, you might have a stroll through The Signs Along The Road, my random Internet clips. I picked up some nice cool pictures along the way.

More Picks of the Week on The Road.

Picture courtesy Future Perfect

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Quo Vadis UN Peace Keeping?

UN helmet

"Tall trees catch a lotta wind", the saying goes. With cost of UN peace keeping operations now peaking at US$8 billion per year, no wonder the troubled UN department is front page news (again).

Deploying and supporting its record number of 113,000 staff, the blue helmets came into the press cross-fire (again) due to the most recent debacles in DRC and Darfur where they don't seem to have any direct positive impact on the peace process.

But one should look at both sides. It is all to easy to blame it on "the UN", as if it was some piece of soap in a bathtub: difficult to grab, and a generic nuisance. "The UN" does what its memberstates define what it should do. If member states only want a 'token' peace force in some country, a 'token' it will remain, despite best efforts on the ground.

Two pieces I recently read, at least tried, to see things in perspective. One from the New York Times:

More than a decade after United Nations peacekeepers failed to prevent massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica, Bosnia, what many consider the organization’s flagship mission appears to be slouching toward crisis once again, diplomats and other experts say.

The most immediate cause, they say, is a sharp rise in the number of peacekeeping commitments worldwide and a type of “mission creep” that has added myriad nation-building duties to the traditional task of trying to keep enemies apart. The new demands come at a time when member states with advanced armies in particular have become more resistant to committing additional troops or even necessary equipment like helicopters.

Those challenges have only added to a deeper and longstanding problem: the continued lack of clarity about how the United Nations should intervene when its members lack either the military force or the political will — or both — to halt carnage.

“Peacekeeping has been pushed to the wall,” said Bruce Jones, the director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, which is working with the United Nations on reform efforts. “There is a sense across the system that this is a mess — overburdened, underfunded, overstretched.” (Full)
And one from the book "Blood River" by Tim Butcher (more on this book in a later post):
I have seen numerous UN missions around the world, in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and all over the Middle east. Each was castigated by the international media and commentators for being inefficient, bureaucratic and ineffective, but such criticism always misses the point.

Yes, the missions are sloppy and poorly focused, but that is precisely because the international community's attitude to complicated problems like the collapsing Yugoslavia, or rampaging west African rebels, is sloppy and poorly focused.

When the United Nations Security Council addresses these international problems, the questions it ends up answering is not 'What is the right thing to do?' but 'What is the least we can do?'. UN missions around the world evolve at the pace of the lowest common denominator between the nations of the world, and that common denominator is pretty low when nations with interests as divergent as China and America both hold prominent positions in the UN Security Council.
Picture courtesy genetologisch-onderzoek.nl

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Song of the Day: Stand by me...

From the documentary, "Playing For Change: Peace Through Music", comes the first of many "songs around the world" being released independently. Featured is a cover of the Ben E. King classic by musicians around the world adding their part to the song as it travelled the globe.

More music and videos on The Road.

Video courtesy Playing For Change.

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Heading for trouble in Sudan

Sudan's Bashir soon to salute to the ICC?

Judges at the International Criminal Court have decided to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, brushing aside diplomatic requests to allow more time for peace negotiations in the conflict-riddled Darfur region of his country, according to court lawyers and diplomats.

It is the first time the court has sought the detention of a sitting head of state, and it could further complicate the tense, international debate over how to solve the crisis in Darfur.

Ever since international prosecutors began seeking an arrest warrant last year, opponents have pressed the United Nations Security Council to use its power to suspend the proceedings. But a majority of Council members have argued that the case should go forward, saying Mr. Bashir has not done enough to stop the bloodshed to deserve a reprieve.

Many African and Arab nations counter that issuing a warrant for Mr. Bashir’s arrest could backfire, diminishing Sudan’s willingness to compromise for the sake of peace. Others, including some United Nations officials, worry that a warrant could inspire reprisal attacks against civilians, aid groups or the thousands of international peacekeepers deployed there. (Full)

While Sudan still plays down reports on al-Bashir arrest decision for the moment, there was plenty of press in the past months where Sudan claimed indicting their president would risk bloodshed.

And then there is of course the statement of the UN envoy to Sudan saying Bashir's government warned the UN of "serious consequences" for its staff and facilities if the International Criminal Court issues an arrest warrant.
This resulted in the Sudanese government denying such threats (Full), and the UN denying it was to evacuate its staff in view of the upcoming arrest warrants (Full).

All politics and maneuvering... My predictions:
- Sudan will not surrender its president to the ICC
- UN and the powers-that-be will further pressure Sudan
- Masses will come onto the streets in all major cities, attacking UN and NGO facilities, causing the latter to seriously reduce staff.
- Darfur rebels and South Sudanese fractions will see a potential vacuum, and will renew military actions.
- ..causing the Sudanese military to respond more violently than before
- UN and NGOs evacuate
- ...giving either warring fractions enough space to do whatever they want in a free-for-all genocide.
- and by the time all of this is finished with a political compromise, Sudan will have one million people less. And the world will have one more genocide to justify.

But that is just me and my cynical mind, of course.

Picture courtesy AFP/Getty Images

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Life of a blogger

bored with the internet

This is sometimes how I feel ;-)

Picture courtesy XKCD

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2009: the year of the food catastrophy?

countries affected by drought

This is not a happy picture. Early warning of droughts in US, Australia, South America, Asia and the Horn of Africa are indicating a major drop of food production, which will have a direct impact on the price of food. (Full)

2008 was marked by a spectacular raise in food prices due to a combination of speculation, a push for biofuel production, and a shift of food consumption patterns in countries with a large population. World market food prices have dropped temporarily (see this example for rice market prices). Unfortunately, this drop did not have an immediate effect in the food prices on the market in developing countries, where food continues to be out of reach of the poor. And prices are raising again.

With the early indicators of droughts, we are in for a renewed hike in food prices, which potentially might dwarf the 2008 food price crisis.

More on The Road about the food crisis

Map courtesy Market Skeptics

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Our Kiva project #11: Maria Castillo

Maria España Ugaz Castillo

Here is a summary of The Road's 11th social project:

A micro-financing loan to Maria España Ugaz Castillo in Peru.

Maria belongs to the "Mujeres Perseverantes" ("Persevering Women") Communal Bank, in the Calleria district, the region of Ucayali (Peru). She is 52 and has three grown children.

She has been working with the Communal Bank for 2 years and invested her first loan ($100) into the sale of cooked beans. The investment has increased her sales and she has been blessed with an ever expanding number of clients.

Today, she sells a wider variety of regional bean dishes. She gets up at 3 a.m. to cook so that her dishes will be ready for sale in the Micaela Bastidas market by 6 a.m.

With this new loan of $400, she will buy 15 kilos of beans. (See also Maria's full profile on Kiva)

This loan goes through "Manuela Ramos / CrediMUJER", the local micro financing partner of Kiva.

Loan Request: $400
Repayment terms: 4 months (Deadline Apr 15 2009)
We gave her a loan of US$50

This is The Road's 11th social project. The funds for this loan were donated by the VK0IR Heard Island expedition team.

More on The Road's social project "Change Starts Here".
You can keep track of our project via our score card.

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THE solution for peace in the Middle East?

This video is the first commercial of "Holocaust Survivors and Grown Up Green Leaf Party" in Israel

According to the video, about 1 million Israelis smoke weed.

Maybe if their party won the elections in Israel, everyone would be cool, man!

Video discovered via Chris Blattman's blog

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Zimbabwe: Hey I seized the farm first


Sometimes news about Zimbabwe makes me bitter. Sometimes, I can only get sarcastic. Like when I read this article:

Zimbabwe: Judge Accuses Grace Mugabe of Seizing His Seized Farm

A Zimbabwe High Court judge has accused President Robert Mugabe's family of using political muscle to wrestle a farm allocated to him during the land seizures.

Court documents in our possession filed on November 10 last year show that High Court Judge Ben Hlatshwayo had been allocated Gwina Farm, located in Banket, Zvimba District, in Mashonaland West province and measures approximately 580 hectares.

Hlatshwayo's affidavit exposes Mugabe and his family as multiple farm owners through their company Gushungo Holdings that carries out farming activities at Mazowe Farm, Sigaro Farm, Leverdale Farm and Bassiville Farm.

Gushungo Holdings is cited as the first respondent and the Minister of State for National Security, Land Reform and Resettlement is cited as the second respondent. (Full)

So I wonder what kind of conversation would have transpired between Mugabe and Judge Hlatshwayo. Maybe something like this:

- Hey Mug, this is H.
- ...Hello?
- Mug?? This is H.
- [ticking against the phone]
- Mug???
- [background noise] Ah.. Yeah right.. Sorry, had it upside down.
- Mug?
- Yow! Woosdiz?
- Hey Mug, this is H.
- Yow H., my man, whatzup?
- Hey man. Lisssnn. Your woman is causing me grief, man!
- Which one?
- Grace. That one. She no good, man!
- Why?
- She seized my farm.
- Which one?
- Grace!
- No, which farm?
- Gwina.
- Where the %%$£ is Gwina?
- In Banket!
- Which one?
- Grace!
- No which village?
- Banket!
- No dude, we got no blankets here.
- No Banket, dude, Banket in Zvimba.
- [background noise, whispering] ..no, in Gwina.. [female voice screaming "lemme talk to that no-good judge"]...[background noise].. Hey H?
- How Mug !
- H, listen, dude, Grace says it's hers.
- Which one?
- That farm.
- No dude, it's mine!
- No, it's hers!
- Hey, I seized it first. I seized it from that white dude.
- She says 'no mind, I seize it from you'.
- But it's mine, I seized it first!
- It no matter, she's boss' girl, she can seize all she can.
- But not from a me, I am a homie from your blingbling clan!
- No dude. She seizes.
- But dude, I will sue her sorry ass!
- Which one?
- Grace's!
- Hey H, stay away from my woman's ass!
- Dude, I will sue her sorry ass. And yours too!
- No you can't!
- Yes I can. I am the judge-man!
- You no judge man for long then!
- Yes I am. I got that hammer thing!
- I will seize your hammer thing! I can seize all, I can. I seized the economy. I seized the government. I even seized the central bank, man. Your hammer is mine. Seized!
- Nooooo [whining] don't seize my hammer thing! I only got one. But I got 30 seized farms!
- Hammer mine. Seized. Should've stayed away from my woman's ass!
- But she seized my farm.
- No matter. She like second layer seiz... eh.. eh.. second layer seizer. She seized the farm. I seize your sorry ass. And the hammer.
- [click]

More satire on The Road

Cartoon courtesy The Economist

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Picture of the Day: Record drought in China

china drought

A riverbed in Zhengzhou, in Henan province (China).

Winter rainfall levels have been as much as 80% lower than normal in China's wheat-growing provinces, causing the worst drought in 50 years. Amid economic unrest in rural areas, the government pledged US$13 billion support for wheat growers. (Full)

More Pictures of the Day on The Road.

Picture courtesy AFP/Getty Images

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The Dubai Bubble: burst, melt or expand?

dubai above the trouble or head in the clouds...

Dubai expects its economy to expand by just under 2.5 percent in 2009 as real estate, construction and exports come under pressure. This growth figure comes in sharp contrast with the usual 8-9% yearly growth. (Full)

The hardest hit is, of course, the real estate market. A local rumour says that Emirates Airlines is still doing well, simply because it is flying so many expat workers back home.
Rumour or not, construction firms in the UAE confirm they are sending some 20,000 Indian workers back home next month. (Full).

Fact also is that almost 60 percent of real estate projects in Dubai, worth a total of $75 billion, are being either delayed or cancelled according to a new report by HSBC. (Full)

It is not just Dubai. Also the Emirate of Abu Dhabi takes serious hits: the leading real estate developers note drops in profit of up to 94% in the last quarter of 2008. Full)

And we have not reached bottom yet. While some property prices have fallen 50%, the prediction is the bottom will only be reached by the 2nd half of 2009. (Full)

Guess Emirates Airlines will continue to be busy repatriating expats for quite a while.

Who would have thought selling cheap home loans in some US back quarters would have this ripple effect across the globe, hey?

Update: See also:
- Dubai Economy in Free Fall
- List of cancelled projects in Dubai
- Driven down by debt, Dubai expats give new meaning to long-stay car park

More posts on The Road about Dubai

Video discovered via MootBox. Picture courtesy Daveandmairi via A Picture's Worth

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The best job in the world. No kidding!

the perfect job

Tourism Queensland is seeking applicants for the job as caretaker on Hamilton Island in the Great Barrier Reef.

You will live-in with flexible working hours. Key responsibilities include exploring the islands of the Great Barrier Reef to discover what the area has to offer and report back via weekly blogs, photo diary, video updates and ongoing media interviews. [Ed: Hey, blogging, pictures, video updates.. That's me! They're talking about me!]

Other duties may include (but are not limited to):

  • Feed the fish (over 1,500 species of fish living in the Great Barrier Reef but don't worry, you won’t need to feed them all)
  • Clean the pool (like "if you happen to see a stray leaf floating on the surface")
  • Collect the mail
Salary: AUD $150,000 (about USD 100,000) for the six-month contract.

More info and applications welcome here.

[Ed: OK, I'm outta here. This blog will not be updated for the next 6 months. Byeee!]

Update May 6: Brit wins "The Best Job in the World" contest

Thanks to Gianluca for the tip. Post re-discovered via @rachelshattuck on Twitter

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The accountability of aid

kids in nicaragua

I came across an article in USA Today titled: "Audits: Afghan aid lacks accountability"
After seven years of work in Afghanistan, the U.S. government's premier development agency continues to pay hundreds of millions of dollars annually to private contractors that frequently fail to demonstrate results, according to aid workers, former diplomats and audits by the agency's [Ed: USAID] inspector general.

President Obama said last week he was "committed to refocusing attention and resources on Afghanistan and Pakistan." He named special envoy Richard Holbrooke to oversee aid and diplomacy in those countries. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she wants the U.S. Agency for International Development to assume development tasks ceded to the Pentagon.

Yet USAID's multibillion-dollar Afghanistan reconstruction effort continues to struggle. Of six different audits conducted in the last year by the agency's inspector general, only one found a program working largely as it was supposed to. (Full)

The article lists a summary of the different projects in USAID's $7.9 billion spending in Afghanistan since 2002 and links to the audit reports.

Apart from the fact this is rather bad news for USAID, and the beneficiaries - the people of Afghanistan-, it begs to question "what can be done to make aid more efficient"?

To me, the aid organisations function in an "aid market economy", with the same principles governing a market economy: reputation, marketing, reporting, performance, effectiveness, cost efficiency... Not -like the commercial market- with the goal to maximize profits, but the maximize aid efficiency.

You could apply the same principles from a commercial market to the "aid market": demand and supply. The demand being "aid organisations requesting funding" and supply being "the world's capacity to give".

As, the supply is limited to "the world's ability to 'give' ", say x billion USD per year, each development and aid organisation is competing for those funds, which are much more limited than the need.

What if we could instigate a bit more of the "market economy" dynamics to this equation? What if, just as a commercial company has to publish their net results at the end of the fiscal year, and has to prove its efficiency in its market to its stake holders, what if we institutionalize this better, and more transparently to the "aid business"?

What if we push more to have aid organisations concentrate on net returns: both short term and long term impacts of their programs? What if donors would push more for NGO's, UN organisations, IO's to have their operations surveyed by external auditors, and to have the reports made public (like this one from USAID)?

Would this not only ensure more efficiency of aid? Would this also not help donors assess where their 'aid funds' are better invested? And in the end, increase the net benefit to the stakeholders: the beneficiaries.

Otherwise the world can spend yet another century of aid. Ineffective aid.

Interested in aid and accountability: Check "Keeping a critical eye on aid & the UN" in the "Links: Aid Resources" header in the side column.
Picture courtesy Sabrina Quezada (WFP)

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15 years ago, I was on the most remote place in the world

storm on Peter I island

I have done plenty of crazy stuff in my life, but a few adventures stand out.

Exactly 15 years ago, I was on what is called "the most remote place in the world", an Antarctic island called "Peter I". It was remote, even to Antarctic standards: three days sailing from the nearest South Pole base and 1,000 miles away from the nearest hospital. 1,000 miles of frozen sea and drifting ice bergs.

Antarctica with Peter I Island

It took our expedition team 6 days to get there, departing with an ice breaker from the Falklands - by itself not known to be the most frequented tourist destination.

When we landed on Peter I, we were only the third team to ever put foot on the island. Imagine that: there had been more people and more landings on the moon than on that island.

15 years ago, to the date according to my diary, we had the roughest storm ever. I described it in this short story.

Peter on Peter I

This was crazy stuff. The mere size and financial risk of the expedition, the logistical challenges, the nightmares in battling the snow blizzards hoping nobody would get hurt, and that (please God!) the tents would hold up...

But the real nutty stuff was that we had no clue how were were going to get back to the civilized world. A one way ticket to the most remote place on the planet, it seemed...

We had chartered a Russian research vessel to pick us up (see this short story), but they would only go as far as King George island, in the North of the Antarctic.

How we were going to get out of King George, was still a logistics puzzle we had not resolved when we landed on Peter I.

Desperate situations required drastic measures, so while still on the island, we chartered a C130 plane from the Uruguayan air force, through a company in Punta Arenas (Chili).
Over short wave radio, we made deals with the charter company to put day-trip tourists on the plane, splitting the charter fee with us. To cover the remaining costs, we had to sell all our tents and survival gear on King George island before the plane flew us to Southern Chili.

Honey, I chartered a plane... Our C130 on King George island

That was 15 years ago. Two months after I (eventually) got back to Belgium, I did my first mission as a humanitarian aid worker. And another series of crazy adventures started.

My three expeditions to the Antarctic and the Pacific are recorded in this eBook. It's in Dutch, but try the translate widget in the side bar. Enjoy!

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Tourists in Iraq? Maybe not just yet...


An Italian tourist was caught on a bus from Baghdad to the notorious city of Falluja in Iraq.

“I am a tourist,” were his first words. The telephone line from Falluja was bad, but there could be no mistake. Falluja’s first Western leisure visitor was in town.
Not for long, though. An Iraqi checkpoint guard spotted the traveler, Luca Marchio, among Iraqi passengers in a public minibus. (..)

“I am a tourist. I want to see the most important cities in the country. That is the reason why I am here now,” he said in heavily accented English. “I want to see and understand the reality because I have never been here before, and I think every country in the world must be seen.” (..)

The Italian Embassy in Baghdad established that Mr. Marchio had traveled from Italy to Egypt, then to Turkey, and from there to northern Iraq over land. A photocopy of his passport shows that he obtained a 10-day visa and crossed the border from Turkey to Kurdistan. (Full)
Courageous or nuts?

Discovered via Paul from Humanitarian Info.

Picture courtesy Michael Kamber (The New York Times)

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Thirteen years ago

Peter in Uganda (1996)

Almost to the day, thirteen years ago, I stepped off a plane in Uganda to start my first posting for a UN humanitarian organisation.

Since I had quit my 'normal job', three years before, went on an Antarctic expedition, and worked for the International Red Cross (IFRC) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in several short term consultancies for two years. But this was my first full time job since three years.

I originally joined as a telecommunications specialist, but went through many different assignments with postings in Kosovo, Pakistan and Dubai before I ended up at the headquarters in Rome.

When I look back at the picture above (I certify I have not worn sandals with white socks for years!), a lot of memories come back. Mostly memories I am very fond of, and tried to reflect in my eBook.

Today, I was reminded of what it was like, thirteen years ago: I got two Emails from people describing how they have been trying to get a job in the humanitarian world. Both of them described their attempts, and up to a certain level showed doubt if 'they would ever get in'.

Somewhere, today, it was easy to put understand how these people feel. I remember how I found the humanitarian world to be locked by a huge steel door, which was almost impossible to get through. I had the right qualifications, a proven track record and experience. I was motivated, and felt a 'true humanitarian at heart'. And yet, I could not get a full time job. What was wrong with me?

I kept on sending my resume to a multitude of organisations. And resending them, and resending them. Until one day, someone replied showing at least some level of interest. After a couple of exchanges, I got interviewed - via telephone as I was on mission for the Red Cross in Ivory Coast -, and some time after that, it looked like the steel door was finally opening for me. Four months later, I stepped off that plane in Kampala.

I summarized my experience and tips for aspirant aid workers in what is now one of the most read posts on this blog. Looking at the volume of Emails I get asking for suggestions on opening that "steel door", I know how many, today, are in the position I was thirteen years ago.

Apart from the hints listed in that post, the only thing I can say is "Don't give up". Keep on trying. It took me three years to get in, but thirteen years later, I have not regretted my choice to push that door. And bang it at times. So don't give up.

More posts on The Road about aidworkers

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Acute hunger spots in the world

Drought in Karamoja - Uganda

Myanmar faces food shortages in many parts of the country, largely because of last year's cyclone Nargis destroyed most of the delta's harvest and a rat infestation wiped out most of the remaining crops.
A total of 2 million acres (800,000 hectares) of rice paddy were submerged saltwater waves and 85 percent of seed stocks were destroyed. A shortage of labor - 130,000 were left dead after Nargis - higher fertilizer prices and lower rice prices have dissuaded delta farmers from planting, causing about 185,000 tons of emergency food aid needed this year. (Full)

There is a general alert going out for an upcoming wave of hunger due to a drought in the Horn of Africa:

In Uganda's Karamoja region 970,000 people are heading towards starvation. The Government declared the whole region as an emergency area and said "food must [quickly] be distributed to this area to avert this problem." Drought conditions will cause conditions unlikely to improve before October when the next harvest is due. (Full)

The same regional drought also hit Kenya hard. In the South-eastern regions, the third consecutive bad crop will force 3.2 million people to resort to food aid. (Full)

Since August last year, WFP, the UN's main food assistance agency, has lost 4 staff in Somalia due to security incidents. Last week they said if the situation does not improve, they will be forced to cut their food aid, which will affect 2.5 million people. (Full)

In Zimbabwe, the hunger figures are even worse. The prolonged political turmoil has turned Africa's former breadbasket into one of the continent's poorest countries. Currently 4.5 million Zimbabweans are fully dependent on food aid, a figure expected to raise to 6 million in the next month.
Due to lack of donor funding, WFP has been forced to cut core monthly maize rations from 10kg -already 2kg below the recommended ration- to 5kg a month for adults. That is just about 600 calories a day. (Full)

News discovered via NewsFeeds and AidNews.

Picture courtesy James Akena (WFP)

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Making money while saving lives


An interesting article in The New York Times about a company supplying good to aid organisations. Does "Making money while doing good" make you feel good? You bet! Can one justify making "Money while saving lives"? You bet! Is there a commercial market for humanitarian supplies? You bet! Is it right to "Make money while saving lives? Guess it depends who you ask the question to.
There are plenty of charitable foundations and public agencies devoted to helping the world’s poor, many with instantly recognizable names like Unicef or the Gates Foundation.

But private companies with that as their sole focus are rare. Even the best-known is not remotely a household name: Vestergaard-Frandsen.

Its products are in use in refugee camps and disaster areas all over the third world: PermaNet, a mosquito net impregnated with insecticide; ZeroFly, a tent tarp that kills flies; and the LifeStraw, a filter worn around the neck that makes filthy water safe to drink. (..)

The company’s main business was facing competition from Asia, and both he and his father found relief work more interesting. Exporting used clothes for distribution in refugee camps was profitable. And there was a market in tsetse fly traps; the flies, which transmit sleeping sickness, are drawn to certain wavelengths of blue light, so the company had to make fabric of the right shade that did not fade in sunlight and did not weaken when permeated with insecticide. (Full)

Picture courtesy New York Times

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The 1001th Post on The Road...

1000 blog posts

This is my 1001th blog post since we started The Road. To celebrate this joyful event, i am launching a new site under theroadtothehorizon.org: NewsFeeds. In this site, I display newsfeeds from different news sources. It is based on what I used to do in Pageflakes, but decided it was time to make my own.

"NewsFeeds" is still being refined (it is built using Google Sites). It has different pages for news sources from Europe/US, the world, for magazines, social bookmarking and social media sites, for humanitarian news, news from the places I live and has a 'specials' page.

NewsFeeds compliments the other sites I have under 'The Road' banner:

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A Super Bowl surprise...

Super BowlUS sports fans in Arizona got a surprise when their TV coverage of American football's Super Bowl was interrupted by a porn movie.

Tucson-based KVOA-TV said it was "dismayed and disappointed" after some cable viewers had their match coverage disrupted towards the end of the game.

The clip showed a woman unzipping a man's trousers, followed by a graphic act between the two.

"I just figured it was another commercial until I looked up," viewer Cora King told the Arizona Daily Star. "Then he did his little dance with everything hanging out."

The interruption happened just after the last touchdown by the Arizona Cardinals, who lost the match to the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Full)

[Ed: Dismayed or not, rumour has it KVOA-TV's subscriptions went up by 1,230% in one day...]

Picture courtesy AP (the real interesting Super Bowl picture was sensored)

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